On the football field, visual communication is key. That’s especially true for the Silent Warriors, a team of middle and high school students who are deaf or hard of hearing. They compete against mainstream and deaf schools across the U.S., where having a unique language can be both an advantage and a challenge on the field.
On a recent Friday night, roughly 30 football players stretch in unison to the heavy beat of a drum. The drum has a purpose. More on that later. The boys on the field are deaf or hard of hearing. They play for the Silent Warriors, a football team of the Alabama School for the Deaf in Talladega. Tonight’s home game is against Jacksonville Christian Academy, a 1A mainstream, or hearing team.
Like many of his players, head coach Paul Kulick is deaf. He says tonight’s game should be a good one. “When we’re playing hearing teams, you know they’re looking at us and they’re kind of, they’re thinking we’re disabled,” he says through an American Sign Language interpreter. “So they’re going to be a lot easier to play against.”
Zachary Beaver,18, is a captain of the Silent Warriors. He can hear some sounds and speak. On the field, Beaver and his teammates use sign language to communicate, and he says that can be an advantage when playing mainstream teams. “It’s kind of like an element of a surprise because most of the time, they don’t know what we’re saying,” Beaver says. “And sometimes we’re able to confuse the defense or the defense is able to confuse the offense.”
Beaver also points out that there are challenges. For example, if the quarterback wants to change a play at the line of scrimmage, he cannot just yell it out. And players cannot always turn around on the field to watch for signs. So they come up with strategies, like that drum beat from earlier. Coaches use different drumming patterns to signal players, who feel the vibrations.
Throughout the season, the Silent Warriors play against four mainstream schools. But according to Coach Kulick, their biggest rivals are the five deaf schools they play from around the country. “It’s kind of bragging rights for the deaf schools to play each other and see who’s the best one in the nation,” Kulick says, adding that rivalry stems from a shared identity, both on and off the field.
Stephanie Dubose, who has two children who are hard-of-hearing, moved to Talladega more than a year ago so her kids could attend the school for the deaf. Her son quickly joined the football team. “Definitely, my son, he fits in here,” says Dubose. “Everybody understands him you know. At public school, it was really hard for them to play any kind of sports.” Dubose’s daughter is a member of the Spirit Squad and cheers during the games.
John Mascia, president of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind, says for students, football and other sports are about more than just exercise and fun. “You know sports is really important because our kids have to compete and they can’t just compete with other schools for the deaf,” Mascia says. “They have to compete with kids who are hearing and who don’t have disabilities.”
At the end of the night, the Silent Warriors defeat Jacksonville Christian Academy 32 to 28. As crowds applaud, the band kicks into gear and the spirit squad cheers from the field. It turns out that Silent Warrior football games are not so silent.